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The Sober Lush by Amanda Eyre Ward and Jardine Libaire

When I first became pregnant in 2015, I had moved months prior from Brooklyn, NY to Los Angeles, CA. My best friends mostly still lived in NYC and I’d booked a visit just before the end of my first trimester, meaning, I wasn’t ready to tell some of my acquaintances yet that I was pregnant. I’d already arranged for a get-together with my best friends and close friends and former colleagues at a bar… the usual setting of all the best memories of my twenties. I made sure to get to the bar extra early, so that I could have a discussion with the bartender. So that I could tell her, “whenever I ask you for a gin and tonic, just make it a tonic with lots of limes.” She asked no questions and held up her end of the bargain through the night, and nobody was the wiser. I had built up this image of myself as an indulgent drinker to my friends, and I knew if they saw me drinking non-alcoholic beverages, they’d know immediately I was pregnant.

It may seem obvious from just that paragraph that I’m not much for self-help books. When pregnant, I bought a bunch of them and proceeded to not read them. Especially the one about French-style parenting I side-eyed on my bedside table while I picked up Night Film, Gutshot, My Brilliant Friend, Oryx and Crake—I am a bonafide fiction lover. But now, nearly five years after giving birth, realizing the breadth of patience and complete selflessness parenting asks of us, amidst a pandemic, living in a country with an incompetent, harmful person at the helm: hey, someone tell me what to do because I am drinking ALL THE TIME!

But Amanda Eyre Ward and Jardine Libaire, the charming authors of The Sober Lush: A Hedonist's Guide to Living a Decadent, Adventurous, Soulful Life—Alcohol Free, would do no such thing as tell you what to do. The writers found each other in their sobriety, became friends, and have written this book to share with you all the ways—all their stories—about remaining indulgent in life (and about life!) without sacrificing your health and wellbeing and entertainment and joy to alcohol and drugs. It’s pretty great, even as someone who is drinking a margarita right now.

“We used to worry: What will we do if we don’t drink anymore? We’ll have no one to hang out with, we’ll be bored and lonely, left out of the fun. But when we took off our blinders, there were people everywhere, hidden in plain sight, showing us stunning ideas. We just had to want to see them.”

The Sober Lush, much like I wished I’d found in parenting books but didn’t, is about maintaining one’s own needs while recognizing the restrictions in place needed to… stay alive, as it were. Feel alive is perhaps the better phrase. As a Libra who is self-indulgent to the point of destructive at times, I’m always looking for a way to feel alive.

Written in short, third-person chapters, the book is full of wonderful stories about their journeys without alcohol (and some history of their lives in the before). They indulge in costumes when needed, they find true connection where previously they thought the vulnerability to share could only be found through alcohol, there’s a chapter on aphrodisiacs in place of liquid courage, and they go in for perhaps only a page total on the deliciousness of honey. Yet I wrote a note to myself at the end of the chapter: “buy some fucking honey!”

There’s a lot of joy for them here, an eagerness in the writing, in their art, and never pushy or trying to convince you that sobriety is the best way for you, dear reader. They make sure to “live and let live, and take care of our own agenda.”

But what to do when you read this in the middle of a pandemic?

Well, there’s a chapter called “Errands” that waxes poetic about being able to shop and connect with others, like local proprietors you see regularly and get to know. There’s a positive note still about the convenience of getting to shop online without leaving the house or the desk, and that’s the only nugget that can survive this chapter while a single tear rolls down my cheek for the bookseller I used to see every week and would remark how my kid was getting so big or the Manhattan restaurant that always knew which table I was traveling to because my friends and I ate there so often, or, or, travel! Which is also discussed in a whole section of stories called “Roaming,” and some of these tactics must be looked on as from a historical time, because: coronavirus.

Just to keep in the spirit of reminding you about the current hell we’re living existing through, Ward and Libaire talk about people who “[drink] away the daily news.” Which, truly, has been me the last six months after getting my kid to bed. They understand that that will work for some people but for them: “It was when we subtracted liquor and drugs that there was space for marching, for volunteering, for joining.” There are stories within about dedicating more time to protesting, about volunteering for Meals on Wheels, women’s shelters, and prison programs. We all show up in our own ways to give back to the community, and their necessitated sobriety. This all feels a little more electric now, given the national (global!) protests after George Floyd’s death in late May, mere days before The Sober Lush was officially published. Indeed, they had no way of knowing that their book would come out during this kind of atmosphere, but they always seem prepared:

“A surprise-attack way to feel alive is to meditate on death.”

This comes from a chapter about creating an altar, a memento mori, to cut through the trivial portions of one’s thoughts. And if this time has taught us anything, one hopes it would be to prioritize that which we formerly took for granted. In this perspective, it seems a gift to read. I felt small moments of joy to read about others exploring hedonism without guilt or remorse. Even when writing about ways to combat life’s little indignities, especially Amanda’s parent-perspective chapter called “The Arsenic Hour,” I found something to care about. I found myself caring at all, which is rare these days, honestly.

The book certainly made me examine my relationship with booze. I’ve taken breaks from drinking before (a very nice nine-month one once), and I wish I’d had their lovely section at the end, “An Eclectic Appendix of Lush Recipes,” to help me through those periods. I did send some photos of recipes to sober friends and told them when I could have them over again for dinner or book clubs or what-have-you, I’d make sure to refer to this book for something delicious for the menu. More than anything else, this book made me want to read these writers’ novels. No, this book did not make me sober, but Amanda and Jardine (now we’re on a first-name basis given how much they opened up in The Sober Lush) are talented writers, and as it turns out, novelists. So I’ve added White Fur and The Jetsetters to my TBR. I have to assume their writing will captivate this fiction-reader even more than their guide through sober life.

The shortcomings of this book are, if you were looking for a self-help book, you won’t find it here. Instead, think of this book as two writers telling you about their specific journeys, and maybe you’ll find the thread there, you’ll see a little of yourself reflected in their genuine and caring words. The Sober Lush is a series of mini personal essays for your perusal; I promise, as skeptical as you may be, they will charm you.

Sure, am I writing this from my attic office on a hot August night with a cold margarita sweating on a coaster next to me? Yes. I just spent an hour going in and out of my four-year-old’s bedroom trying to get her to sleep and not be afraid that the virus is lurking in the darkness of her room at night. It’s no excuse to drink, but I know Amanda and Jardine would understand, let me live, and if I chose a different outlet after bedtime… I know I could just open their book and they’d tell me, while making me smile.

The Sober Lush

By Amanda Eyre Ward and Jardine Libaire

331 pages. 2020.


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